Thursday, March 6, 2008

Where the press fails in coveraging Presidential races

A colleague suggested we are being unfair to complain that the press doesn't cover "the issues" but instead covers "the horse race."

He says the press covers the issues thoroughly at the beginning of the season; later, everybody pretty much knows the issues and the candidate stands, so attention shifts to the horse race--which is, really, what the readers care about most too, and that's where the news is. "But don't blame the media if you weren't paying attention when the platforms were getting nailed together. The story's moved on. Where were you?"

Besides, it's trivially easy to find out candidate positions and every other important thing -- it's all over the Internet. "The story is now about process. What exactly would you have the mass media reporting on?"

HE MAKES SOME GOOD POINTS: The *issues* and the stands of the candidates on the issues (to the extent they have them), and more clearly, their ideologies regarding government, are by mid campaign well understood by anybody who cares. I think even on an instinctive level, most voters, even without paying a lot of attention to specific coverage, have a firm grasp that, for example, McCain is a conservative Republican of a certain stripe, and Obama and Clinton are liberal Democrats broadly in agreement ideologically. TO that extent, that kind of coverage doesn't really matter -- which is why few people watch the debates. They don't expect significant surprises.

Where I think coverage falls short is in two areas.

First, a lot of the coverage is He said She said -- one politician makes a set of claims about an issue, or a solution, or his own history, or his rival's, and the press reports it flatly that way. There is rarely any attempt to put the candidate's claim or assertion *in context*. Many of the things they said could easily be looked up.

I know the press publishes occasional deeper pieces where they summarize these claims and counterclaims and interpret and contextualize them. But there is a strong tendency in the press (and not just the political press) to feel that once they've written about a topic, it's Done. They never need to revisit it. Everyone on earth has read that piece, and has it readily at hand for context for subsequent coverage. "We already wrote about that" is the most common remark when you complain about lack of coverage of certain kinds.

Subsequent coverage often sounds like the reporter never even read the deeper contextual coverage.

A: Lie
B: Lie
A: Blather
B: Counterblather
et al. for a month

In-depth story: What's the reality? Let's look.

The next day:
A: Lie
B: Lie
A: Blather
B: Counterblather
et al.

You don't have to choose sides or be ideological yourself or lose objectivity when you add context to reportage. Senator Blather says "Immigrants/gays/rightwing prayer nuts/Canadians/greens/conservatives have had this and that bad impact on the noble state of Iowa." Context: Endless research studies show no such bad impact, in fact many good impacts. But no, we can't write that; instead, we call up an ideological/partisan rival Senator (or approved thinktank) and get a quote from them. Problem with that approach is, you often just get two partisan/ideological "sides" of an issue, which often has more than two sides to it.

I remember some issue being argued about by the politicians, and the WSJ published an editorial offering a third alternative solution to the problem, an alternative not being discussed by any of the pols. The following week a major article in the news section reported on this issue and summarized all the proposed solutions -- leaving out the one that appeared on *their own editorial pages* just a few days before.

I'm sorry, this is poor reporting.

And I think it's poor reporting to make the readers do all the work.

The second way they fall short falls out of the Horse-Race obsession. Politics isn't just about who wins and who loses. Politics is also about how the nation will be "run" by the government. It's about problems and solutions, and ideas for solutions. We always need more ideas for solutions, not fewer. When you focus so narrowly on the horse race aspects, then you only focus on the ideas proposed by the two main candidates who have a chance of winning (or the five candidates early on, and then as they drop out, their ideas drop out too). This means there is no point in covering the major underlying issues that power these campaigns - and the hopes and dreams of the electorate to create a better, more peaceful and prosperous nation.

More specifically, it means giving as little attention as possible to any third parties or independent candidates who have no real chance of winning the election. Green, Independent, Libertarian, Peace&Freedom, and Rainbow Coalition parties have ideas too. In fact, *all* they have is ideas, since they have no chance of actually winning. But that's *good* because can offset the instinct of the winning politicians to avoid taking any actual positions because they will offend or arouse some constituency. They try to be as idea-free as possible -- they go for slogans and feel-good themes -- Change is the one of the day, though exactly *which* changes, where and how, and who will get nailed by those changes--well, naturally, you'd be a fool to be too specific about that. You hold off as long as possible in the campaign, while your opponent tries to trick you into being too specific - so s/he can leap on it.

So we bounce back and forth between idea-free Democrat liberals and idea-free Republican conservatives -- candidates who never really are able to satisfy, once in the Presidency, the dreams of liberals or of conservatives. (Though sometimes they fulfill the dreams of the opposite side by accident -- the old joke about Bush being the best Democrat and Clinton the best Republican the nation has ever had in the Presidency has some resonance.)

In my view, the press can stir things up usefully by giving more attention to the *ideas* of the third-party and distant-loser candidates--because it injects new ideas into tired old debates. Most of those ideas are nuts, or impractical, or *seem* impractical, or are too novel or too early. But in *some* cases they will find the voters reacting, maybe surprisingly, to one or another idea. Once that idea gains enough traction -- of course the mainstream candidates will co opt the idea -- if they have any brains. It's irritating to the third-party candidate, no doubt--but it's the only way to drive fresh solutions into a winner-take-all electoral system that drives all plausible candidates to a muddled middle ground.

Historically, it's why we have Social Security in the first place. Apparently, this notion was a plank of the Socialist Party during the early 1920s. It was popular - so the Democrats stole it. Without the Socialists (and unfortunately their bomb-throwing extremist fringists giving them publicity the press wouldn't otherwise have given their ideas), we'd have to Social Security. Whether you think that's a good thing or not, the point is, the Socialists could *afford* to throw out an idea so radical and expensive and nutty - they weren't going to win anyway, all they *had* were ideas!

We're throwing away a golden opportunity here.

Of course, to do this right, the press would actually have to decide which nonwinner ideas to give attention to - this would require judgement, because the press wouldn't want to (and I wouldn't want them to) give equal weight to all ideas, otherwise we'd be reading pensive essays about the neo-Nazis or the nutty ideas of the LaRouche party. And this kind of judgement is anathema to the modern press. And more's the pity.

The whole notion of avoiding any kind of value judgement needs to be reexamined, seriously reexamined. Our strategy and tactics for avoiding being accused of bias have led to bad consequences all around.

(And, trivially but annoying, as a Libertarian I do notice how reporters manage somehow, magically, to inject their little notes of incredulous disbelief when reporting, in the once-per-season writeup, on the Libertarian candidate. Having your cake and eating it too -- Priceless!)

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